Sunday morning rail restrictions on IDF personnel draw ire

MK Itzik appeals for soldiers' free, unlimited use of public transport; MK Matalon: Army creating gaps between its own soldiers.

Israrail train Bombardier 311 (photo credit: Bombardier)
Israrail train Bombardier 311
(photo credit: Bombardier)
Thousands of soldiers sought alternative ways to reach their bases early Sunday morning, as a new agreement between the IDF and Israel Railways that eliminates free rides for soldiers on most trains between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Sundays went into effect.
According to the IDF, about 6,000 soldiers opted to ride on the 243 free buses provided as an alternative to the train. The army did not provide statistics on how many soldiers arrived at their bases on time, but it has already promised those arriving late will not face punishment.
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The initiative was agreed on in order to save the IDF money and to relieve the heavy crowding on Israel’s trains on Sunday mornings, when thousands of soldiers use the rail lines to return to their bases after weekends off.
The new arrangement has been attacked by a number of politicians, with Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) announcing the committee will not approve defense funds until soldiers are allowed to ride the train for free again.
Mofaz’s comments came during a visit he and other committee members made to Tel Aviv’s Savidor Center train station Sunday morning to supervise the implementation of a new system in which soldiers ride buses that depart from train stations.
“The State of Israel must do everything for those that serve it,” Mofaz said, adding that Israel Railways should prepare a multi-year plan to deal with overcrowding on trains, rather than remove soldiers.
The committee chairman said it is “unreasonable and irrational” to withhold the NIS 25 million per year to fund soldiers’ train rides, and that he would not authorize funds in the joint Finance-Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the defense budget.
According to MK Moshe Matalon (Israel Beiteinu), when soldiers who are serving and fighting together cannot sit together on the way to the base because one is wealthier than the other, it will dangerously demoralize them and undermine the human foundation of the army.
“The army of the people, which is meant to be an equalizing melting pot, is creating gaps between its own soldiers,” he said.
MK Miri Regev (Likud) said if the Defense Ministry does not act, she will work to reinstate free train rides for soldiers via legislation.
She pointed out the new arrangement will create classes within the IDF, with those who can afford it paying to ride trains and arriving on time to their bases.
Also, on Sunday, Regev and Kadima faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik submitted a bill to guarantee free transportation for IDF soldiers at all times.
According to the bill, soldiers will not be limited in time, distance or destination when using free public transportation.
“The train shouldn’t only be for rich soldiers,” Itzik said. “It cannot be that a wealthy soldier can pay to ride a train, while others will ride for hours longer on buses.” The Kadima MK said she will not allow discrimination against soldiers who contribute three years of their lives to the state, and hopes her bill will prevent similar plans in the future.
The Knesset Finance Committee plans to hold a meeting on the new policy on Monday, with committee chairman Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud) saying: “Either the soldiers will like the policy, or it will be canceled.”
Shama-Hacohen visited the train station in Rosh Ha’ayin on Sunday, where he was told by Israel Railways representatives that within three years, the number of train cars will be doubled, and IDF soldiers will be probably be allowed back on the trains on Sunday mornings.
However, the Likud MKs said if soldiers are unsatisfied with the change and are leaving their homes on Saturday night for fear of being late to their base Sunday morning, the Knesset will make sure the new policy will come to an end in much less than three years. He added that he plans to order polls of soldiers in the coming weeks.
Three young female soldiers outside the Azrieli Center train station in Tel Aviv on Saturday described the new Sunday morning train regulations as a slap in the face, even though it didn’t affect them personally.
All three said that while they serve in desk jobs at the nearby Defense Ministry headquarters, they believe it’s an insult to those who serve in the IDF.
“My brother serves in the navy outside Haifa, he always took the train from Tel Aviv, but now, if he needs to get there early in the morning on Sundays he’ll just go back Saturday night so he isn’t late on Sunday,” said one of the three defense ministry soldiers Sunday afternoon.
Another one of the three soldiers said she had seen soldiers on Facebook writing about good places to hitchhike in the mornings, and said she feared the new regulations would drive soldiers to hitch rides, exposing them to kidnappings.
A young, female Golani Brigade sergeant, who said that while she lives in the Tel Aviv area and is not affected by the new regulation about half of her friends take the train to base after weekends off. She said she is certain that those who have the means will pay for the train rather than take the free shuttle provided by the army, because they will not trust that the buses will arrive nearly as quickly as the train.